By TED MONOSON | Gazette Washington Bureau | [url=http://www.billingsgazette.com]http://www.billingsgazette.com[/url]
WASHINGTON—A day after 14 Cuban envoys were expelled from the United States for “inappropriate and unacceptable activities,” a euphemism for spying, Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., renewed calls to lift travel restrictions to the communist nation.
“It’s like life,” Baucus said. “It’s good to talk with your friends. It is good to talk with your enemies. I am not saying that Cuba is our enemy. I am saying that we should talk with them.”
As part of an effort to pressure Cuban President Fidel Castro, the United States has prohibited trade with and travel to the Caribbean country for the past 44 years.
Baucus and Enzi joined a bipartisan group of House members who have introduced a bill to lift the travel restriction. The lawmakers are facing an uphill battle because President Bush and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, both oppose lifting the restriction. Opponents of lifting the ban say Castro’s human-rights record is not improving. Castro recently imprisoned 75 dissidents and executed three men who hijacked a ferry in a failed bid to reach the United States.
Rep. Steven Rothman, R-N.J., who opposes the effort to lift the travel restrictions, said life would not improve for average Cubans if the ban was lifted.
“That is the theory, but the problem is that Cuba is a pretty tough place,” Rothman said. “It would send a confused message to the world and the people of Cuba.”
Baucus said he had spoken with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., about moving legislation to lift the travel ban.
“I am serious,” Baucus said. “We want to get this up on the floor.”
When asked about the problems the bill likely will face in the House and at the White House, Baucus said, “We have to take it one step at a time.”
In reference to DeLay and Bush’s opposition, Baucus conceded, “We are being stymied by a minority.”
On the House side, the effort to end the travel restriction has brought together one of the most conservative representatives and one of the most liberal—Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass. Flake and Delahunt’s bill would not permit trade, but supporters say permitting travel is the first step to opening trade between the United States and Cuba.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., also supports Flake and Delahunt’s bill.
“I don’t condone Fidel Castro’s dictatorship or his human-rights record,” Rehberg said. “But this is about the freedom of Americans to travel, and I think the best way to change Cuba is to end the travel ban and allow trade.”
Baucus said increased trade between the United States and Cuba had contributed to better diplomatic relations. The Montana Democrat led the effort to establish normal trade relations between China and the United States.
“My argument then was that we should engage without illusions,” Baucus said. “We should engage with our eyes open. The same is true with Cuba. We should definitely engage with Cuba.”
Rehberg said he does not expect the effort to succeed this year but added it is part of an extended effort to build support.
“It takes numbers, and eventually we’ll build up the numbers so we don’t have to worry about Congressman DeLay or President Bush,” Rehberg said.